June 08, 1992 12:00 PM

IN A WORLD WHERE SMART DRUGS HAVE supplanted peyote and even proto-hippie Dennis Hopper is playing it straight, David Carradine seems like something from the Pleistocene. At 55, the man who once packed his mental baggage for 500 acid trips and trashed a neighbor’s Laurel Canyon home while stark naked has lost none of his contrarian esprit. For Carradine, perhaps best known for the 1972—75 TV martial arts—western series Kung Fu, growing older hasn’t meant giving in.

Witness the scene at the 34-acre ranch in Sun Valley, Calif., where Carradine lives with third wife Gail, 42, in a disorderly house built in 1883. Scattered throughout the living room is a jumble of snare and conga drums, a piano, a rocking horse, an antiquated television, two nude portraits of Carradine’s mother painted by his great-uncle, a bottle of Mylanta, a deck of cards, a biography of Frederick Douglass, an Indian headdress and a clay bust of Gail that Carradine hasn’t yet finished. Three dogs and two cats have the run of the place, and loitering on the stone porch is an oversize gelding named Captain. “Oh, open any door, he’ll come in,” Carradine says casually. “He just wanders in and looks for the dog kibble. Gail treats him like a puppy.”

These days, Carradine’s hair is steel gray, and his austere face is fuller. Otherwise, he seems the same all-natural hubris case that he was nearly 15 years ago when he declared, “I’m perhaps the most gifted actor of my generation.”

For a man who had starred on Broadway (as an Inca king in The Royal Hunt of the Sun when he was 29) and in film (as Woody Guthrie in the 1976 movie bio Bound for Glory), those words sounded less ironic. For someone who has spent the last 10 years working mostly in slice-and-dice action movies like Kill Zone, Armed Response and Dune Warriors, the notion seems vaguely poignant.

Except to Carradine. As quietly as a kung fu master waiting for action, the firstborn son of the late character actor John Carradine has been plotting a kind of comeback. Last fall his book, Spirit of Shaolin—a combination autobiography, kung fu manual and spiritual primer was published by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. He has directed a three-part film called Mata Hari, starring daughter Calista, 28, and he will soon be at work on another, titled Proud Mary, which he describes as The African Queen set in Cambodia. Next year, Carradine will resurrect his old TV spirit—playing Kwai Chang Caine’s great-grandson in a two-hour TV movie titled Kung Fu that will be followed by 22 episodes of a syndicated sequel.

And despite the cluttered trappings of his home, Carradine’s life has also assumed a kind of order. Wife Gail Jensen is a latter-day Earth Mother who manages his career, produces many of his movies, composes music (including lucrative jingles), sings, and presides over a heterodox household that includes stepdaughter Kansas, 14 (from his second marriage) and, at times, an 11-year-old neighbor boy for whom Carradine serves as an unofficial foster father. He and Gail (then an actress) wed in Rome eight years after meeting on the set of 1980’s The Long Riders. Says David: “It works. We feel like we’ve known each other for a thousand years. Something will happen, and we’ll say, ‘Yeah, you did that to me 800 years ago.’ ”

Carradine’s early life was less secure: Born in Hollywood to the actor John Carradine and his first wife, Ardanelle, Carradine was just 7 when his parents divorced. Shuttled between the two, he grew up in boarding schools on both coasts. Although he was orphaned emotionally, he did become close to the seven stepbrothers and half brothers he would accumulate during Dad’s four marriages: Ardanelle’s older son, Bruce; Chris, Keith and Bobby (whose mother was actress Sonia Sorel); Mike Bowen (Sonia’s son from an earlier marriage); and Mike and Dale Grimshaw (John’s stepsons by third wife Doris Rich). By 1970, Carradine says, “I had a house in the Hollywood Hills that virtually every brother has lived in. It was like this safe harbor. We all took care of each other.”

David’s acting breakthrough—his 1965 part as Broadway’s Inca king—came only after lean years of studying music and ballet at San Francisco State, a brief Army hitch and a life-support gig as a prune picker. With a four-year marriage to high school sweetheart Donna Becht (mother of Calista) behind him, Carradine had made the rounds in Hollywood without relying on his father. “It took me a long time to realize that he was having a hard time getting jobs himself,” he says. “But I’m not sure he would have [helped] anyway—you were supposed to make it on your own.”

It was in 1969, when he was shooting a movie called Heaven with a Gun, that David fell in love with Barbara Hershey—a kindred soul who changed her name to Barbara Seagull after accidentally killing a sea-bird and, she said, feeling its spirit enter her body. The two never married, but they had a son in 1972 and, in the spirit of the times, named him Free. Intense and troubled, the union foundered after six years. For David, the sadness lingered: “It wasn’t until Barbara and I split up that I realized how much I had lost,” he says.

Now a 19-year-old aspiring actor, Tom Carradine (né Free—he changed his name after relentless teasing) remembers David as an erratic father. He saw him only rarely but remembers that “he always had the tendency to be late. The latest he ever was, he showed up at the correct time, but the next day. That was a little hard to deal with when I was younger.” Still, he adds, “he’s a good man. You can wonder if he’s a good father or a good actor, but he’s definitely a good man.”

Carradine’s 1977 marriage to Linda McGuinn (ex-wife of Byrds bandleader Roger and mother of Kansas) was no more successful than l’affaire Seagull—even though Carradine says he was “ruthlessly monogamous” with her. It lasted just four years; shortly after splitting, David fell in love with Gail. “I wish I’d found her when I was 20,” he says now.

At the moment, the insular Carradines seem determined to stay free of the Hollywood fray. In 1989 they traded their five-bedroom mansion in the Hollywood Hills for a rustic farmhouse; by then, David (once a racing enthusiast) had given up his Ferrari and put his wine collecting on hold. Ever the Zen-like philosopher, he says that, even as he plans his professional reincarnation, he wants to keep his distance from the town where he grew up. “This is not paradise, but it is heaven,” he says cryptically. In the brief pause comes the sound of his wife singing in the kitchen, where she is padding about, barefoot as always. Adds David: “Yeah, there’s a big difference.”



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